In cautious times of pandemic, it’s another day roadtrip to explore our region. This time, south of Carcassonne into the Pyrénées. We have collected a list of scenic lakes in the mountains. From our list, we selected Lac de Puyvalador as our destination because, well, just because! Really, we just wanted to get in the car and go.
We took a short section of the autoroute out of Carcassonne, before exiting onto the much more picturesque departmental (county) routes. Along this section of the autoroute, there is a rest stop called the Belvédère de la Cité — meaning a panoramic viewpoint of the medieval city of Carcassonne. For once, we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, so we paid the belvédère a visit.
From the rise above the highway, you can see all of the town of Carcassone in one vista.
As well as La Cité de Carcassonne.
In order for a fortified town to be considered a Cité, it has to have within its walls a château (or castle residence of the local lord), a village or town, and a cathedral.
As we drove south after Limoux and Quillan, the road became narrow. Lots of blind curves in the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys.
The river has been used at least since the Middle Ages for the transport and trade of wood by rafts or carassiers (from Occitan carràs, large wooden raft). But huge rocks blocked any passage by foot or vehicle. In the 18th century, Father Félix Armand initiated the effort of building a road through the impassable gorge. After six years of work, by May 1781, a narrow and tortuous path had pushed through the massive rock formations. While the French Revolution interrupted the the works, Father Armand was able to complete the road.
In commemoration of Father Armand’s effort, these four lines were written on the rock, above the “Trou du curé” (the pastor’s passage — although literally, it is “the hole of the pastor,” which presents translation problems), on the Quillan side:
Arrête, voyageur ! le Maître des humains A fait descendre ici la force et la lumière ; II a dit au pasteur : « Accomplis mes desseins ». Et le pasteur des monts a brisé la barrière. Stop, traveler! The Master of humans Brought down strength and light here; He said to the pastor, “Realize my designs." And the pastor of the mountains broke through the barrier.
In 1821, the path became a departmental road. The previously isolated mountain region beyond Quillan, rich in forests, cattle, grazing lands, and thermal and mineral springs became accessible to the rest of the department.
After the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys, we continued through the Gorges de Saint-Georges.
Over millennia, the Aude River has dug spectacular gorges in the limestones of the Pyrenean foothills. The gorges of Saint Georges, upstream of Axat, are the narrowest part of the Upper Aude Valley. Here, the river has dug the rock into a canyon over 30 meters deep, the walls of which are only 20 meters apart in places.
After these dramatic gorges, we emerged into the Capcir valley. We hadn’t expected such an expansive green basin. The Lac de Puyvalador turned out to be a small artificial lake of little interest. But the green valley full of flowers, cattle and vistas and very few people was delightful.
There are quite a few ski resorts in this area, such as Formiguères, Les Angles, Puyvalador, and Carlit. Although the resorts are only a couple hours by car from our home, we don’t relish driving through the gorges on cold snowy days. We’ll have to find a way to come up here in the winter by train or bus.
In the Middle Ages, Capcir was not much more populated than today. The population was distributed in many villages or simple localities. The lakes of Puyvalador and Matemale did not exist (they are artificial), the geography of the places is essentially marked by the rivers Aude and its tributaries the Galba and the Lladura. The royal cities or Formiguères and Puyvalador dominated the region. Formiguères was the historic capital, the first city to have its parish. Puyvalador, which developed in the 11th century, held the castle that protected the northern border of the kingdom of Aragon.
At the far end of the Capcir valley, the formidable wall of mountains turned our route to the west. The border between France and Spain runs along the top of this ridge, which includes peaks of about 2,900 m / 9,500 ft. We entered into the Cerdanya region.
The westernmost but also the highest of the regions of the Pyrénées-Orientales department, Cerdanya is at the heart of the Pyrenees. There are all the advantages of the high mountains such as ski resorts (Font-Romeu, Puigmal), hot springs (Dorrès, Llo), enough to make walks in the forests, hikes of all levels and even treks! And all this in a grandiose landscape.
Our route skirted the borders with Spain and Andorra. We will explore further on another day. Today, we head down the valley of the Carol River to return home.
We passed by the town of Ax-les-Thermes, which is famous for hot springs and skiing.
Ax-les-Thermes is a spa, summer resort, excursion center and winter sports resort in the Pyrenees. The town is located in the historic region of Sabarthès, near Andorra, and is located at the confluence of the Oriège, Ariège and Lauze rivers. The hot springs flow out of the local granite. These waters have a high content of silica, sodium and especially sulphides and sulfur. The sulfur gives off a particular and characteristic odor. The temperature water varies between 15 and 45 deg C / 59 and 113 deg F.
The route pushes through the impressive Puymorens Tunnel.
The Puymorens Tunnel was built between 1988 and 1994. 4,820 meters long, it links Porté-Puymorens (Pyrénées-Orientales) on the South side and L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre (Ariège) on the North side. Designed to connect the Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon regions, it is also intended to be the structuring link of the fast axis joining Toulouse to Barcelona, thus facilitating the central crossing of the Pyrenees in all seasons, and offering easy access to Catalonia and French Cerdanya. In 1994, French President François Mitterrand, Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, and Catalunya President Jordi Pujol jointly inaugurated the new tunnel.
We finished our day trip in familiar territory through Tarascon-sur-Ariège (see our blog post about the Grotte de Niaux) and Mirepoix.